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Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup - 1000 Kms Circuit Paul Ricard

31st May - 1st June 2019

Event report by Raymond Bonnello

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Bronze test (31 May 2019)

Rinat Salikhov put the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari on top in the opening session of this weekend's Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup event at Circuit Paul Ricard, kicking off a busy day of running at the French venue.

The Russian driver posted a best lap of 1m55.972s, edging out the Tempesta Racing Ferrari of Chris Buncombe by just 0.009s.

The #52 AF Corse Ferrari was third, completing a top-three lockout for the Italian brand.

The session ran without interruption until a red flag in the final few moments, which brought proceedings to an early conclusion.

This was caused by a collision between the #52 Ferrari and the #31 Team Parker Racing Bentley, which left the latter car stranded at turn 1.

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Free practice (31 May 2019)

A rapid lap from Klaus Bachler sent the #54 Dinamic Motorsport Porsche to the top of the order in free practice at Circuit Paul Ricard, with the Austrian ace putting more than half a second between himself and the rest of the 49-car field.

The #54 Porsche has already shown its capabilities this year by opening the season with victory at a rain-soaked Monza.

Conditions could not have been more different during today's practice session, with bright sunshine and clear blue skies over the French track, but the Dinamic Motorsport car was once again on top.

Second overall – and quickest in the Silver Cup class – was the #90 AKKA ASP entry. Nico Bastian was at the wheel of the Mercedes-AMG for the lap, which was 0.526s off Bachler's best.

The significance of the Dinamic Porsche's advantage is demonstrated by the fact that P2 through P18 were also covered by a little over half a second at the end of the 90-minute run.

The #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG was third quickest overall and the leading Pro-Am effort, with Jim Pla recording the car's quickest lap.

Indeed, with a third AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG in fifth spot thanks to the #88 crew, the French squad appears to be in strong form for its home event.

The Am Cup class was topped by the #33 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari, which beat a number of Pro cars to finish an impressive P31 overall. Manuel Lauck set the time aboard class-leading Ferrari.

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Pre-qualifying (31 May 2019)

Blancpain GT Series newcomer Orange1 FFF Racing delivered another strong showing in this fryday's pre-qualifying session at Circuit Paul Ricard, with Andrea Caldarelli putting the Chinese squad's #563 Lamborghini on top at the French venue.

Though the outfit is new to the series it currently leads both the drivers' and teams' standings in the Endurance Cup, having taken runner-up finishes at Monza and Silverstone.

The #563 Lamborghini showed its front-running pace with team principal Caldarelli at the wheel, setting a best time of 1m53.093s to edge out reigning champions Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG.

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The German squad went P2 at the very end of the session thanks to a rapid lap from Luca Stolz aboard the #4 car.

The #87 AKKA ASP machine ensured that there were a pair of Mercedes-AMGs among the top three, while also topping the Pro-Am order thanks to Jim Pla.

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The leading Silver Cup car was not far behind, with Mattia Drudi putting the #55 Attempto Racing Audi fifth overall, while in Am Cup the #188 Garage 59 Aston Martin led the way.

The British effort's most recent class win was at Circuit Paul Ricard last year.

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In a typically close session the top-26 cars were split by a shade over a second, with series debutant Alex Lynn (#76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin) just 1.034s shy of Caldarelli's best effort.

qualifying (1 June 2019)

The #107 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 will start this evening Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms from pole position, continuing the British marque's stellar form at the French venue.

Bentley entered the weekend as the brand to beat, having previously claimed two victories (2014 and 2017) and two runner-up finishes (2015 and 2018) at Circuit Paul Ricard.

None of those came from pole, however.

In fact, today's result represents the British marque's first pole position in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup.

The #107 car did not immediately appear to be a contender for P1, but a consistent showing from Jordan Pepper (fifth in Q1) and Steven Kane (12th in Q2) put the Bentley in the fight for a place in the top-five on average times.

Then, when Jules Gounon went quickest with a stellar lap in Q3, he sent the #107 car to the top of the order.

The French ace was the fastest across all three qualifying sessions and edged the #107 Bentley ahead of the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3, which will start this afternoon's race from second spot with Marco Engel, Luca Stolz and Yelmer Buurman at the wheel.

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The #4 seemed to be headed for pole, but with Buurman only 10th in Q3 the Mercedes-AMG was 0.053s shy of top spot on average times.

The result was especially sweet for Kane, who has been with Bentley throughout the brand's time in the series and can now at last celebrate a pole position.

Third overall and on pole in the Silver Cup class was the #55 Attempto Racing Audi R8 LMS, which was consistently quick in the hands of Steijn Schothorst, Pieter Schothorst and Mattia Drudi.

The same trio took Silver pole at Silverstone and will start seven spots clear of its nearest class rival, the #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3, this evening.

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Pro-Am pole went to the #97 Oman Racing with TF Sport Aston Martin Vantage AMR GT3, which has now secured top spot in qualifying in three successive races.

Salih Yoluc and Ahmad Al-Harthy tackled the first two sessions before Charlie Eastwood ensured class honours with the sixth best time overall in Q3.

In the Am Cup category, the #188 Garage 59 Aston Martin Vantage AMR GT3 secured pole courtesy of Chris Harris, Alexander West and Chris Goodwin.

The British squad took its most recent victory at this event 12 months ago – albeit with a different brand of car – and will be targeting a return to the top step this weekend.

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Attention now turned to the evening's race, which begins at 18.00 and runs for up to 1000kms.

Bentley's tremendous form at Circuit Paul Ricard makes the #107 Continental GT3 hot favourite for the win.

But, given the unpredictable nature of the event, nothing will be decided until the chequered flag falls at midnight.

The race (1 June 2019)

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The #107 Bentley Continental GT3 has won the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms, converting pole position into victory to secure the British manufacturer a landmark success as it celebrates its 100th anniversary year.

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The win is sweet redemption for the M-Sport crew of Jules Gounon, Steven Kane and Jordan Pepper, who came within a lap of conquering this race last season.

On that occasion, Gounon was passed on the final tour of the six-hour contest. This time, however, the young Frenchman was on board for the final stint and took the chequered flag to seal Bentley's triumph.

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Victory at Circuit Paul Ricard represents a return to winning ways for the M-Sport outfit two years after its most recent triumph, which came at the very same event.

Indeed, this is the team's third win at the track since taking its maiden Endurance Cup success there in 2014.

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Though it came from pole position, the Bentley squad had to work extremely hard to earn their place on the top step of the podium after six hours of racing.

Pepper was passed for the lead at the start by the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG, but the South African fought back into P1 between two safety car periods to hand over to Kane in the lead.

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The British driver also faced stiff opposition and was overtaken by the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan of Andrea Caldarelli.

Kane then made clever use of a safety car to stop for fuel and fresh Pirelli tyres, which allowed him to return to the front of the field once more.

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The #107 Bentley remained at the head of the pack as the four-hour mark approached.

This meant Gounon, who set the absolute best time during the morning's qualifying session, only needed to bring the car home during the final two hours.

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It would not be that simple, however, as a slow stop dropped the #107 Bentley into second position and a full eight seconds behind the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari 488.

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Gounon immediately showed his pace, taking significant chunks of time out of Miguel Molina's advantage in the Italian machine.

The Bentley was closing on to the rear of the Ferrari, but ultimately did not need to make an overtake as the SMP car was hit with a drive-through for an earlier pit stop infringement.

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After Molina had served the penalty with 90 minutes remaining, Gounon held a lead of 14 seconds.

The French ace showed impressive maturity to maintain his advantage over the closing stages of the race, resisting the temptation to over-work the car while still pulling away.

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When his final pit stop ran without major incident, Gounon was on his way to victory. He extended his advantage over the concluding hour, eventually winning by a hugely impressive margin of 37 seconds.

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Second spot went to the #72 SMP Ferrari, an excellent result for the squad following its drive-through penalty and after starting 15th on the grid. What's more, the crew of Aleshin, Rigon and Molina now lead the Endurance Cup drivers' standings.

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The podium was completed by the #563 FFF Lamborghini, which snatched the place during the final five minutes.

Marco Mapelli was at the wheel and found his way past the #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage AMR to secure another top-three for the Chinese outfit.

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The Silver Cup class was typically competitive, with several crews contending for the win.

The pole-sitting #55 Attempto Racing Audi R8 LMS was eliminated early on, after which the #333 Rinaldi Racing 488 showed very strongly at the top of the order before running into trouble.

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The #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG then assumed the class lead, but the French squad was subsequently hit with a penalty for crossing the white line at pit exit.

This allowed the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS to seize P1, but a stellar final stint by Felipe Fraga in the AKKA ASP machine saw the Brazilian re-take the lead with less than 10 minutes left on the clock.

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It capped another superb showing by the #90 Mercedes-AMG crew, which secured its second class win of the season following victory at the Monza opener.

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In Pro-Am, the all-French AKKA ASP line-up took a popular home victory with its #87 Mercedes-AMG.

The crew of Jean-Luc Beaubelique, Mauro Ricci and Jim Pla led for a large portion of the event, but there was no opportunity to relax as the #74 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG stayed in the hunt until the finish.

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Pla remained in command, however, beating Tom Onslow-Cole to secure class honours and ensure a double victory for AKKA ASP at its local event.

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The Am Cup category was won in truly commanding fashion by the #188 Garage 59 Aston Martin Vantage AMR, which led from pole and never looked troubled on its drive to victory.

Given the length of the race and the on-track incidents that occurred, this was a remarkably cool performance from the British outfit.

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It represented a return to the top step for the crew of Chris Harris, Alexander West and Chris Goodwin, whose last triumph was at this event 12 months ago.

It also broke a run of four successive wins by the #77 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini Huracan, which finished second in class after making a late pass on the #488 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari.

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The major incident of the race occurred on the opening lap, when the #2 Audi R8 LMS of Ezequiel Perez Companc (Belgian Audi Club Team WRT) and the #444 Ferrari 488 of Florian Scholze (HB Racing) made heavy contact with the barriers at high-speed.

Both were attended to quickly by the on-site staff, allowing the race to resume after the safety car period.

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There was no such drama for Bentley Team M-Sport. The British squad could relax during the latter stages of the contest as the hugely impressive Gounon built an insurmountable gap.

As fireworks lit up the skies over the circuit to mark the race's conclusion, all was calm inside the #107 car.

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(Based on Blancpain GT Series Press release)

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